The Country of the No

About the author
Suketu Mehta is a fiction writer and journalist based in New York. His first book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found won the Kiriyama Prize.

This extract is from one of seven books shortlisted for the 2005 Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. The winner will be announced on 15 October, and over the coming weeks openDemocracy will present extracts from each of the finalists:

  • “Baghdad burning: girl blog from Iraq”, Riverbend
  • “Of Wars: Letters to Friends”, Caroline Emcke
  • “Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier”, Alexandra Fuller
  • “A season in Mecca: narrative of a pilgrimage”, Abdellah Hammoudi
  • “The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World’s Oceans”, William Langewiesche
  • “Maximum City: Bombay lost and found”, Suketu Mehta
  • “Death in the Little Pentagon: The Secret Killing Fields of the Peruvian Army”, Ricardo Uceda
  • * * *

    “Can I get a gas connection?”

    “No.”

    “Can I get a phone?”

    “No.”

    “Can I get a school for my child?”

    “I’m afraid it is not possible.”

    “Have my parcels arrived from America?”

    “I don’t know.”

    “Can you find out?”

    “No.”

    “Can I get a railway reservation?”

    “No.”

    Read more extracts from Maximum City: Bombay lost and found:
  • The Country of the No (introduction)
  • Powertoni (part I)
  • Pleasure: Vadapav Eaters’ City (part II)
  • Passages: a Self in the Crowd (part III)
  • India is the Country of the No. That “no” is your test. You have to get past it. It is India’s Great Wall; it keeps out foreign invaders. Pursuing it energetically and vanquishing it is your challenge. In the guru–shishya tradition, the novice is always rebuffed multiple times when he first approaches the guru. Then the guru stops saying no but doesn’t say yes either; he suffers the presence of the student. When he starts acknowledging him, he assigns a series of menial tasks, meant to drive him away. Only if the disciple sticks it out through all these stages of rejection and ill treatment is he considered worthy of the sublime knowledge. India is not a tourist-friendly country. It will reveal itself to you only if you stay on, against all odds. The “no” might never become a “yes”. But you will stop asking questions.

    “Can I rent a flat at a price I can afford?”

    “No.”

    Coming from New York, I am a pauper in Bombay. The going rate for a nice apartment in the part of south Bombay where I grew up in is $3,000 a month, plus $200,000 as a deposit, interest-free and returnable in rupees. This is after the real estate prices have fallen by forty per cent. I hear a broker argue on the phone with another broker representing a flat I am to see. “But the party is American, holds an American passport and American visa; everything, he has. His wife is British visa ... What? Yes, he is originally Indian.” Then he speaks apologetically to me. “It is for foreigners only.” As another broker explains it, “Indians won’t rent to Indians. It would be different if you were a hundred per cent white-skinned.” At least this is one sign that my passport changes nothing. I am one of the great brown thieving horde, no matter how far I go. In Varanasi I was refused admittance to the backpackers’ inns on similar grounds: I am Indian. I might rape the white women.

    The earth is round and you go all over it, but ultimately you come back to the same spot in the circle. “Look everywhere but, I guarantee you, you will be living in Dariya Mahal,” my uncle predicted. It is not a flat I wanted, after the first immediate rush. The second time I came back to see it I didn’t like it. But I feel as though I could never live anywhere else in Bombay. The universe is teleological. I grew up in the third building around the palace. My grandfather lived in the first. Now I have come back to live in the second, completing the trilogy. The ghost time and the present have no boundaries. Here is where I got beaten up by the bully, here is where I saw my true love on Holi, here is where the men made the pyramid to get at the pot of gold, here is where the mysterious caravan called Nefertiti always parked. I am afraid that one of these days I’ll meet myself, the stranger within, coming or going. The body, safely interred in the grave, will rise and, crouching, loping, come up to me from behind.

    The clerk in my uncle’s office, who grew up as our neighbour in Dariya Mahal 3, tells me that Dariya Mahal 2 is “cosmopolitan”. This is how the real estate brokers of Nepean Sea Road describe a building that is not Gujarati-dominated. For a Gujarati, this is not a term of approval. “Cosmopolitan” means the whole world except Gujaratis and Marwaris. It includes Sindhis, Punjabis, Bengalis, Catholics, and God knows who else. Non-vegetarians. Divorcees. Growing up, I was always fascinated by the “cosmopolitan” families. I thought cosmopolitan girls more beautiful, beyond my reach. The Gujaratis I grew up among conformed to Nehru’s stereotype of a “small-boned, mercantile” people. A Gujarati family’s peace rests on the lack of sexual tension within it; it is an oasis from the lusts of the world. It is the most vegetarian, the least martial, of the Indian communities. But it is easy-going. “How are you?” one Gujarati asks another. “In good humour,” is the standard reply, through earthquakes and bankruptcy.

    We have a meeting with the owner of the flat, a Gujarati diamond merchant, to negotiate the contract. The landlord is a Palanpuri Jain and a strict vegetarian. He asks my uncle if we are too. “Arre, his wife is a Brahmin! Even more than us!” my uncle replies. And this is where we get our vegetarian discount: twenty per cent off the asking rent. But in my uncle’s words is evident the subtle contempt with which the Vaisyas – the merchant castes – regard the Brahmins. The Brahmins are the pantujis, the professors, the straight people. Not good in business. Eager to come home at funerals for food. Whatever the reasons for my ancestors’ change of caste centuries ago – from Nagar Brahmin to Vaisya – it has served us well. Change of caste is a mechanism for evolutionary survival. Brahmins in a God-fearing age; Vaisyas in one where money is God. And we are in a naturally capitalistic city – a vaisya-nagra – one that understands the moods and movements of money.

    My father has one rule for selecting a flat to live in: you should be able to change your clothes without having to draw the curtains. This simple rule, if followed, ensures two things: privacy and a sufficient flow of air and light. I forgot this dictum when putting down my deposit for the second-floor flat in Dariya Mahal. It is hemmed in by large buildings all around. People walking below or standing on their balconies in the buildings opposite can peep into every corner of my flat, watching us as we go about cooking, eating, working, sleeping. There are twenty floors in the building and ten flats on each floor. Each flat will have an average of six residents and three servants; their allocation of incidental support staff (watchmen, construction workers, sweepers) will be one per flat. That makes 2,000 people in this building. Another 2,000 people live in the building adjoining this, and another 2,000 in the one immediately behind. The school in the middle has 2,000 pupils, teachers and staff. That makes 8,000 human beings living on a few acres of land. It is the population of a small town.

    The flat we have moved into was designed by a sadist, a prankster or an idiot. The kitchen window ventilates only the refrigerator – or, rather, heats it – since there is no provision for curtains and the sun beats down on it. When I turn on the fan in the dark recesses of the kitchen, it blows out the gas flame, since the space for the cooker is directly underneath the fan. The only way we can get air in the living room is to open the study window, to let the sea air in. But this also brings in a sand dune’s worth of thick, black, grainy dirt from outside, along with a spectacular array of filth. (We found a plastic ice-cream cone inside the bedroom once, with a film of syrup and cream still inside it.) We also receive used polyethylene milk bags, the betel-stained plastic cover of a pan, and, once, a shit-stained nappy. The air outside is a rain of thin plastic bags, which has replaced the parrots I grew up with. By five o’clock the living room is dark, since we’re on such a low floor. We need the air-conditioner and the lights on all the time, so our electricity bills run into monstrous figures, the necessary price of keeping the environment out.

    *

    Slowly, a system evolves in the Dariya Mahal flat: a maid, a driver and a cleaner are found and tested; bathrooms are brought to working order; communications with the outside world – newspapers, e-mail, telephones – are established. We begin to get to know the patterns of light and air, we know what time of day to draw the curtains, when to leave the windows open, and in what sequence. We still don’t have many friends, but we are beginning to rely on one or two people that we will see at least once every couple of weeks. The surrounding Gujaratis make tentative attempts to reach out to me but they are unsure of how to do so, since I have left the family business and married a Madrasi.

    Indian friends such as Ashish from America call me. “Can we return there too? We have been thinking for a while, but what kind of job will my wife get ... ?” To what India do you want to return? For us, who left at the beginning of our teenage years, just after our voices broke and before we had a conception of making love or money, we kept returning to our childhoods. Then, after enough trips of enough duration, we returned to the India of our previous visits. I have another purpose for this stay: to update my India. So that my work should not be just an endless evocation of childhood, of loss, of a remembered India, I want to deal with the India of the present.

    But the terrain is littered with memory mines. I step on a particular square of cement on a particular lane and look up and see a tree springing up as I saw it a quarter of a century ago. A memory explosion, an instant bridge between that precise moment and this one. As I walk around the city now, I step on little pockets of memory treasure that burst open and waft out their scents.

    So I wander the streets with my laptop in a green backpack, taking rickshaws and taxis and trains whenever possible, looking for all the things that made me curious as a child. As people talk to me, my fingers dance with Miss Qwerty. But I have to pay. My currency is stories. Stories told for stories revealed – so have I heard. Stories from other worlds, carried over the waters in caravans and ships, to be exchanged for this year’s harvest of stories. A hit man’s story to a movie director in exchange for the movie director’s story to the hit man. The film world and the underworld, the police and the press, the swamis and the sex workers, all live off stories; here in Bombay, I do too. And the city I lost is retold into existence, through the telling of its story.